Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Orchestra Newsletter article part 1 - Horn Call

Although I am a first-year graduate student, this is my fifth year as a student at Cornell University. I have endured four Ithaca winters, witnessed four Slope Days, and taken more prelims than I care to remember. I am, however, only in my first year as member of the Cornell Symphony Orchestra. There is no record of my affiliation with the ensemble for any of the past four years, and likewise, there shouldn’t be: in August of 2003, I left home for my first year of college, and my horn didn’t follow. It would remain untouched in the corner of my bedroom, collecting dust as I pursued a life of supposedly more important things. Nearly four years later, in early June of this year, I opened the case for the first time since that day.

The sudden desire to play my horn again was motivated by several reasons. The first is simply that it is a shame when there is something you once did relatively well but no longer do because you essentially quit without good reason. In this sense, I was motivated by guilt.

Perhaps more importantly, though, my last two years as an undergraduate coincided with a revival of classical music in my life, which began naively during my junior year when, in hopes of balancing my mostly technical curriculum with something from the liberal arts, I enrolled in a music history class. I rediscovered pieces I performed years ago in my youth orchestra, and after further exploration into the greater landscape of classical music, I learned that the works that appealed to me most were of a late Romantic and Russian origin.

By the middle of my senior year, my renewed appreciation for the classical tradition made my return to the horn seem like a likely undertaking. However, I was not convinced that I would be able to make time for another extracurricular activity. I equivocated on the matter as one would expect from someone sporting genuine ambition but lacking self-confidence, until this past June. My curiosity led me to the orchestra’s blog, where Chris Kim posted a tentative concert program for the 2007-2008 season. There, listed for the December 2nd concert, was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Although a lesser known work in the orchestral repertoire, it holds – for me at least – a certain programmatic significance. It is Rachmaninoff’s last opus, and although conceived in an era of rampant serialism and deviation from tonality, the first movement features an unexpected and brief yet distinctly Romantic interlude that betrays even the composer’s late style—a befitting anachronism for one of the last Romantics.

Having this opportunity waved in front of my face was exactly the enticement I needed; I could not miss this chance. So, I practiced. A lot. I logged more hours on my horn this summer than my former, teenage self would have ever considered (though I admit that does not speak for much). I found a private teacher in Boston where I spent the summer to help me regain my playing ability, for I had to be audition-ready in two months.

It has been four months since I made that resolution, and I can’t help but acknowledge the effectiveness of a little, honest-to-goodness dedication and hard work. It’s a maxim that is so often proclaimed in the form of nice-sounding, rhetorical proverbs and parables, but its underlying truth is so frequently obscured by cliché. And yet here I am. I made it. I found myself a seat in a row of brass, with percussion behind me, woodwinds before me, and strings beyond them. There is a localization of sound specific to my very spot in the orchestra, and it is a sensory experience I have been too long without. Truth be told, the Symphonic Dances has been replaced on the concert program by Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, but this modification, in the end, is not in the least disappointing.

If I seem at all boastful in describing what I have accomplished, let that simply be on account of the small, personal triumph I have earned for myself. Ultimately, my experience can be seen, I hope, as just one instance of a more general phenomenon in which we as humans arrive at some of our greatest achievements in life through our own, deeply personal incentives. In these cases, we are driven not by the wishes of our peers or the prospects of tangible reward, but rather by privately held notions of duty, ambition, and passion.

My horn was a part of my life I never should have abandoned in the first place, and though I may never make a living out of making music, I will always turn to music as a source of inspiration and emotional consolation. And even as making up for four years of lost playing proves to be a daunting task, I wouldn’t want to be using my time in any other way. This is what I set out to do, and I managed to pull it off in a quirky, spontaneous kind of way. It’s nice to be back. -Alex Chao, Horn

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